Six Month Reflection

It’s almost impossible to believe that today marks six full months of travel. If you had told me this time last year that I would be in Bulgaria, having been on the road for 26 weeks, been through 15 countries, seen countless incredible sights, made so many wonderful friends, and managed to add seven more dogs to my Menagerie (oops), I would have rolled my eyes and told you you were crazier then I am, and that’s saying something. Yet here I sit, tucked in the little caravan that has been my home for the last six months, and I have done all of those things and more. It’s weird to contemplate how different my life is then I thought it would be a year ago, and more, to really grasp how I feel about the changes.

I “knew” travelling with all my animals around Europe with no plan and little money was going to be challenging. Everyone knew that. But I had no idea just how plain hard it would be. I could never have anticipated the stress involved with not being able to afford campsites, food, gas, and vet care. I couldn’t have known how often we would be coasting in to a truck stop on the last fumes of gas, or what it would be like to not be able to find any rest stops as the last rays of sun were setting behind yet another mountain. When we lost phone service and reliable WiFi we faced a generational challenge that I know our parents would have laughed at… but you can’t find truck stops on a map!!

The reality of six large dogs and five cats cooped up in a tiny caravan and car is actually brutal… there is nothing fun or exciting about it. It’s dirty, hairy, smelly, and crowded. No amount of vacuuming or wiping down can keep the sheer volume of animal at bay. On the days when there’s no place for off leash walking, the dogs pick fights with each other and the cats to work off energy. Or they bark incessantly until your head wants to explode and you can’t think straight.

I’ve struggled with nightmares and insomnia for years due to PTSD, but on this trip sleep has become a distant memory. The few hours I do catch are often interrupted by high beams at truck stops, drunks throwing up in front of the caravan, or dogs and cats simply stepping all over me in an effort to find a place to lay down. And the fact that I haven’t had any sleep doesn’t stop the fact that they all want breakfast, potty breaks, and walks at the crack of dawn. There’s no option to just throw the door open and let them run around the yard for a bit like back home… it requires fully getting up, getting dressed, putting on leashes, yelling for everyone to shut up and sit down so you can do all those things, and then being dragged out the door and across a parking lot to the nearest grass so the business can get underway. This is rain or shine, snow or blazing heat, day and night. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve closed my eyes and wished myself back to England in my great big house with my huge fenced garden and a husband to lean on when it gets to be too much for me. That’s not an option out here on the road so we just get on with it, albeit with plenty of griping and swearing at the animals and at each other when Trav and I have reached the end of our ropes.

Other challenges are more unexpected. Laundry has been our biggest shock. Laundromats such as we have back in the States are not a thing through much of Europe, especially not in small town, rural Europe where we spend the vast majority of our time. We can go a month between finding laundry options and while I have enough clothes to get through it, poor Travis suffers. More, the bedding suffers. Usually I would change sheets once a week at minimum… I’m used to hair but this is a whole different ball game and it drives me crazy. Showering is another issue. In countries with good truck stops we did okay, but when we entered the Balkans, things weren’t so easy. Here in Bulgaria we have access to a house and shower, except it’s winter time, and the pipes freeze regularly. We’ve gotten real good at washing by baby wipes or showering in 60 seconds when there’s enough hot water to do so. They claim that not washing your hair too often is actually good for it… well mine is being put to the ultimate test; I’m not sure I’m impressed.

The reality of life on the road is that there isn’t a lot of what you see in the photos or on those travel shows. We sight see once in a blue moon and in some counties have missed the best sights altogether because they aren’t practical with dogs in tow. It’s not one big adventure day to the next; most of the time it’s just trying to stretch the last few dollars to feed us all until next month’s pay check and be able to afford the gas to get us to the next country or safe place. It’s wondering how to cook food with no stove and no place to start a fire, and how to stay warm with no electricity when the temperatures drop below zero (the animals are real helpful there)! It’s never knowing where we are or where we’re going next, and often not being able to read the signs that are directing us there. It’s a lot of communication by hand and Google translate and often knowing that neither party has a clue what’s been said. It’s hard and it’s depressing and it’s frustrating and it’s often lonely even with each other and the animals for company.

But all that being said, I wouldn’t take back a single moment of the last six months. We maybe be living rough, we may be taking the longer, tougher road, but damn are we living life to the fullest. No one can say that we haven’t taken the bit in our teeth and ran with it.

I’ve bathed in a lake in Denmark and stood on the spot where two seas meet. I’ve traversed most of Poland in an attempt to enter the Ukraine (which admittedly failed). But I’ve walked the castle in Krakow and gazed through the gates of Auschwitz. I’ve ridden native horses in the Czech Republic and watched traditional song and dance at one of their local village fairs. We made friends there, from both the Czech and from all the way from China. In Austria we may have seen some of the worst of life, but we also saw some of the best. I drove Standardbred racehorses and summitted my first mountains. I rode in ski lifts with my service dogs and danced on the streets of Hallstatt with Wasi. I saw Vienna through my family’s eyes, rediscovered Austria’s beauty through them when it had all gone a bit sour. The friends we made it Austria will be ones we keep for life: we’ve revisited some already and have others coming to see us next month! I finally made it to Italy, and the magic of Venice. There’s more to discover there but at least I got a taste. A dear friend joined us there and made it all the more special.

Entering the Balkans, we had no expectations, no ideas of what life would be like here. In Croatia we were introduced to Rakia (ewww by the way), perfect beaches and the friendliest people around. Bosnia and Herzegovina stole my heart with its unexpected charm and harsh mountain beauty. There I rode horses free across lands littered with the ruins of ancient people’s. The recent tragedy only made the people’s determination to move forward all the more inspiring. We lived in a town that had been at the center of the war, where houses still bore the bullet holes and bombed out craters of the violence. Our hosts there has experienced the war first hand, one on the front lines, another having to give up his eight month old daughter to keep her safe. The shadows of what they lived through was often still visible in their eyes and their hard exterior, though when you got to know them, they were people just like us who wanted peace and prosperity just like people everywhere. They shared their stories and it was impossible not to feel their pain. It was humbling and frightening and inspiring all at once.

Our time in Serbia was too short but we reunited with one of the friends we made in Austria and he shared life there with us. We met his family, had dinner made by his grandmother (amazing by the way). We helped move a (very large) pig and played with some piglets. Our friend shared his family’a story with us, how life had improved for them but there was still more they hoped to do with the house. We talked about the protests in Belgrade and how politics are the same no matter where you are in the world. And again it was brought home to us how very alike people are, no matter where they may be… we’re really all the same at heart.

Now we’re in Bulgaria. In the last six months we’ve rescued two dogs and successfully rehomed one. The second dog has a home waiting for her when she weans her puppies. Somehow I’m once again raising a litter of six puppies born on my bed, nearly seven years exactly since my Nefsi was born. I was just divorced then too; how’s that for life coming full circle? My own dogs and cats are happy and healthy. Wasi will celebrate his one year birthday tomorrow; he will have spent exactly half his life living on the road. That’s one well travelled pup! We lost our precious Sami but we’ve never forgotten her, not even for a moment… she’s still apart of our Menagerie in spirit.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know where we will go when our time in Bulgaria is up, or how we will get there. Outside factors have made life all the more difficult right now; especially financially, but I imagine we will get through it. I long to return to England, to my horses, my friends, my life there, but I know it’s not possible right now. There’s so much more to see, so much more to do, and we’ve finally gotten the hang of this life on the road so I suppose we should take advantage; lord knows I’ll never do a trip quite this way again! But it’s certainly been one hell of an adventure so far, and I’m glad it’s not over yet!

Kova’s New Family

It’s a weekend of BiH goodbyes it seems; first to Kupres yesterday, and today to our Bosnian rescue dog, Kova. Goodbyes of all kinds are an unavoidable part of travelling, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

Kova’s new family are Jo and Austin and their cat Ruma. They’re a young American military family stationed in Italy, and they drove to Croatia today to pick up our little princess. I, of course, already really liked Jo after all of our chatting while waiting to hand her off, but I was pleased to like her and Austin just as much in person. They are going to give Kova the wonderful life she deserves, and you can’t hope for anything more then that when you rescue and rehome an animal.

I am going to miss Kova, very much even if she was sometimes a total pain in the bum. I’ll miss the way she curled up in the crook of my legs to sleep at night, and how she always greeted me with a whole body wag. I’ll miss her complete and utter sweetness, the shining goodness that some dogs have and is always more amazing when they have survived what she has survived. I’ll miss how she befriended Wasi and bossed him around even though he’s three times her size (probably more). I’ll really miss how cute and pleased with herself she got when she caught a sent and she alerted for me so I knew how good she’d done. I won’t miss her counter surfing or trash can diving, and I definitely won’t miss chasing her all over the streets of Sarajevo. But those were small prices to pay for getting to love and be loved by such an incredible animal for the last five weeks.

Once again, we picked up an animal who seemed to need rescuing, but who in reality, rescued us. Over the last five weeks she has been a welcome distraction from the emotional hardships I’ve been dealing with, and a constant reminder that life could certainly be worse. Like animals often do, she showed me that the only things that really matter in life are love and time… if she could still be our sweet Kova after nearly dying on the streets, then I can still be a decent person whatever life throws at me. That’s the beauty of animals, they force you took simplify life down to what really matters. Kova simplified everything down to love, because that’s all she wanted, to be loved (okay, and fed). I can’t wait to see her again someday, when she’s fully healthy and has embraced life with her new family. It’s the very best reward there is.

Goodbye Kupres

Today will be a short post because I’m so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open. We said goodbye to Kupres today, a few days sooner then planned due to incoming weather and the need to clean up our cabin for guests. It was a bittersweet goodbye, as Mate and Marko and the girls were so good to us and we had such a wonderful time at the ranch and exploring BiH. They kept me safe and sane while Travis was gone, and for that I am so grateful.

Now I’m laying in my bed in the caravan, where I haven’t slept in five weeks. I missed it, more then I realised. I’ve got Nefsi at my feet, Wasi on my left side, Raj at my head. Syn is with Travis in the car, and Moomkin and Nibble are outside guarding the caravan (which they much prefer to being in either the car or the caravan). Lager is smooshed between me and Wasi and Moscato is laying on my stomach (which he has scratched to death with his happy kneading). The kittens are teasing Kova, who is having her first caravan experience and isn’t sure what to make of the fact that the cats are clearly in charge here. Mead is watching from his favourite spot, content to observe as usual.

I feel like I’ve come home. I know people think it’s crazy to have so many animals, but for me, each and every one of them is unique and important. When I’m not around them, I feel incomplete, like parts of me are missing. That’s how I’ve felt without the cats the last five weeks… it’s no wonder I haven’t been sleeping well despite the clean and comfy real bed. I’m probably a weirdo for preferring this hairy, dusty, cramped caravan to the beautiful cabin we’ve been staying in, but I do. It’s mine, it’s my home, these animals make it my home, and I’m happy to be back where I belong.

TRAVEL POEM: Questions of Travel

Questions of Travel

by Elizabeth Bishop
 There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams 
hurry too rapidly down to the sea, 
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops 
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion, 
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
 
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains, 
aren't waterfalls yet, 
in a quick age or so, as ages go here, 
they probably will be.
 
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling, 
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships, 
slime-hung and barnacled.
 

Think of the long trip home.
 
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? 
Where should we be today? 
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play 
in this strangest of theatres? 
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life 
in our bodies, we are determined to rush 
to see the sun the other way around? 
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world? 
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework, 
inexplicable and impenetrable, 
at any view, 
instantly seen and always, always delightful? 
Oh, must we dream our dreams 
and have them, too? 
And have we room 
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm? 

But surely it would have been a pity 
not to have seen the trees along this road, 
really exaggerated in their beauty, 
not to have seen them gesturing 
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
 
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard 
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune 
of disparate wooden clogs 
carelessly clacking over 
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
 
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
 
Each pair there would have identical pitch.
) 
--A pity not to have heard 
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird 
who sings above the broken gasoline pump 
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque: 
three towers, five silver crosses.
 
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered, 
blurr'dly and inconclusively, 
on what connection can exist for centuries 
between the crudest wooden footwear 
and, careful and finicky, 
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear 
and, careful and finicky, 
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
 
--Never to have studied history in 
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
 
--And never to have had to listen to rain 
so much like politicians' speeches: 
two hours of unrelenting oratory 
and then a sudden golden silence 
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes: 

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come 
to imagined places, not just stay at home? 
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 
about just sitting quietly in one's room? 

Continent, city, country, society: 
the choice is never wide and never free.
 
And here, or there .
 .
 .
 No.
 Should we have stayed at home, 
wherever that may be?"

Lighting the Fire

I lit my first fire today.  That may seem like a small thing, but for me, it turned out to be a rather monumental occasion.  I’ve never lit a fire before, like ever in my whole life.  I’ve been avoiding trying since Travis left, I thought because I was afraid of burning the cabin down.  But the temperatures are dropping, and its raining on top of that, and I really hate being wet and cold, so I knelt down in front of the fireplace and got to work.  I think I might have avoided it for longer if I knew what was coming.

Travis taught me how to build the little wood teepee, make space for the white accelerant block thingie, open the little drawer underneath for air flow and how to wait until those pieces caught before adding one of the bigger pieces of wood.  So I did all those things, crouching there shivering and hoping things would go smoothly.  Everything went along fine until I added the big piece that would actually create some heat… then things just sort of died out.  So I started the whole process over again, trying to remember if I’d forgotten anything, and wishing fervently that someone was there to help.  It was when my consciousness caught up with my wandering mind that things started to go really down hill.  Because I realised I wasn’t wishing for an faceless helping hand, or even my cousins familiar face… I was wishing for a man I’ve spent this entire trip trying to forget, and god that was galling.

I froze there, crouched on that hearth and tried to tell myself it made perfect sense I’d be wishing for the firefighter I married while I was trying to light a fire.  No big deal.  But it was a big deal, a betrayal of myself by myself, and in the moments that followed I stopped shaking from cold and started shaking in anger.  I started prodding the fire with a kind of pathetic desperation, as if getting it to stay lit would release me from the heartache that was threatening to overwhelm me, but it was too late, the thought, and the emotions it brought with it, had already taken root.

I’d like to be able to say that I got that fire lit and burned my ex-husband in effigy on my first successful fire.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead I spent the next thirty minutes lost in a smoky haze of painful memories and seething emotion.  I wanted to be angry with him, with the man who had deserted me, a man who cheated on me, stolen my best friend, lied to me, left me homeless and in tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt knowing that I was in no position to find permanent housing or a real job.  I wanted to feel hatred towards this man who hadn’t been able to love me, who hadn’t even tried to love me, who had emotionally abandoned me when I came forward about my rape, who had degraded me for having PTSD and never once sought to understand the depression and anxiety that plagued me.  Most of all I wanted to stop feeling anything, anything at all, for the coward who broke my heart.

But though I tried to concentrate on all these perfectly valid and anger inducing attributes of this man I’d been married to, it wasn’t anger I felt as I stared in to those sputtering flames, it was grief.  Still, after all this time, I was grieving the loss of love.  Because still, after all this time and despite all those disappointments and failures and just general shitty husbandness on his part, the emotion that I feel most strongly when I think of him is love.  I stopped prodding the wood and sank down fully in front of the fireplace.  This is why I had avoided building the fire, why I haven’t wanted to be alone, why despite the wonders of this trip I still find myself on the verge of tears more often then not.

I’m so tired of feeling this way.  I wake up every morning with him in my head, and go to sleep every night wondering how he is (even though I know perfectly well how happy he and I imagine soon to be wife number four are).  I came on this trip wanting to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those “empty shell people” they talk about in my favourite movie, Under the Tuscan Sun.  I’m no chicken shit after all.  I took my homelessness and debt and crappy job prospects and PTSD addled brain and dragged them on the adventure of a lifetime… what more can I do?  Right?

So why do I still feel like I’m the one who is a coward?  Why is my heart still aching for a man that didn’t love me, and couldn’t wait around long enough to let me heal and start to become the woman I wanted to be again?  After everything I’ve done the last four months, why am I still afraid to light the fire?  And how much longer will it be until I’m not?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and I didn’t find them sitting there staring into the fireplace.  Maybe that’s because I’m asking the wrong questions, I don’t know.  What I do know is that as I sat there, wishing I could stop wishing for what I know can never be, I realised that I wasn’t staring in to smouldering ashes anymore… there were flames… the fire was burning.

And so, I lit my very first fire today, all by myself.  And maybe when I do it tomorrow, I’ll wish for that firefighter a little less, and the day after that, even less, until one day I won’t have to wish for him anymore at all because I’ll know I can light the fire all on my own.

 

Jajce

I promised myself that I would do mini adventures every other day until Travis’ return, and so far, I’m sticking with it.  Today I had one of those “eyes bigger then your stomach” moments, and planned three towns when one was clearly more than enough.  Not to worry, the town I choose turned out to be nothing short of spectacular and now I have two more mini adventures to the other towns to look forward to!

First, I got the ideas for which places to visit in BiH by asking on my favourite travel FB group, Girls Love Travel.  I received loads of advice on places not to miss and I compiled them into a list that I am working my way through.  Jajce was suggested multiple times, and being only about 75 mins from Kupres, seemed like a good choice for today’s mini adventure.

Jajce is a “large” (for BiH) town situated between two major rivers, the Pliva River and the Vrbas River.  The rivers meet right at the foot of the town, where the Pliva tumbles in to the Vrbas creating one of the most stunning waterfalls I’ve ever seen, with the town as its backdrop.  It’s not often that you get to see a waterfall IN a town, and this town is literally brimming with them!  There are waterfalls welcoming you in, waterfalls bidding you farewell, and even more accompanying you on your stroll through the streets.  I was a rubbernecking pro as I drove around stopping at every turnout trying to get photos of as many as I could!

While I probably could have spent all day just waterfall watching, Jajce has more to offer.  A 14th century fortress still graces the top of the mountain, and makes for an incredible photo op.  You can walk up to the top for views of the whole town, but I had Wasi with me, and had to make the call that it might be a bit too many stairs for his ten month old hips (one of the realities of traveling with and working a still growing Assistance Dog in training).  Instead, Wasi and I went to visit Bear Tower (I couldn’t read the signs to figure out why its called that) and the catacombs.

I wasn’t actually expecting to be allowed in the catacombs with Wasi, since the sign clearly said no dogs and as I’ve mentioned before, Assistance dogs aren’t really a thing in BiH.  But the lady at the ticket stand was so nice, and there weren’t any other visitors, so she let me go on down.  This was Wasi’s very first trip underground, which can be very challenging for dogs; many underground tourist attractions throughout Europe are completely off limits to Assistance Dogs, even Guide Dogs, because many dogs find being underground so uncomfortable they can’t perform.  Wasi walked down the first flight of stairs and into the upper chambers without seeming to notice, but hesitated when I started down to the lower chamber.  Despite being fairly well lit, even I was pretty creeped out, and would have turned back if Wasi wasn’t willing to go any further.  Before I could turn around though, Wasi walked down the stairs and strolled past me.  Sometimes I think we are getting no where with his training, and then he does something like this and reminds me that just because he’s slower then Nefsi, doesn’t mean its not all getting through.

Wasi and I didn’t linger in the catacombs, but took a few photos and then hurried up only to be blinded the moment we stepped back outside.  The weather today was absolute autumn gold, with shining sun and cloudless sky and the last of the warm temperatures so I’ve been warned.  I took advantage by strolling along the town’s cobblestone streets and taking photos of everything from the ruins to the new mosque to (of course) more waterfalls.  Since I had Wasi, I decided to skip another solo meal (with some relief admittedly).  The entire adventure in town probably only lasted around two hours, but once I was back in the car, I knew I had expended all the energy I had for solo adventuring that day and opted to head back to Kupres instead of continuing to the next town on my list.  All in all though, I consider it another successful day of being on my own and not hiding out in the cabin, so definitely a win!